Praising Immigrants, Bush Leads Conservative Appeal for G.O.P. to Soften Tone
Publisher: The New York Times, USA
Author: By JULIA PRESTON
Story date: 05/12/2012
Language: English

WASHINGTON — Looking for new footing on immigration before a debate on the volatile issue in Congress next year, Republicans and conservative leaders spoke out this week, raising arguments that immigration is good for the ailing economy and consistent with family values.

Former President George W. Bush weighed back in to the discussion on Tuesday by calling on policy makers in Washington to revamp the law "with a benevolent spirit" that recognized the contribution of those who moved here from other countries.

Mr. Bush spoke at the opening of a conference highlighting the benefits of immigration hosted by an institute in Dallas that bears his name and by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. He described immigrants as a bedrock of the nation's economy, providing new skills and ideas while filling critical gaps in the labor market. But he also presented the question in more human terms in a state that has been a home to huge numbers of immigrants.

"Not only do immigrants help build our economy, they invigorate our soul," Mr. Bush said. Growing up in Texas, he said, he had "the honor and privilege of meeting the newly arrived."

"Those whom I've met love their families," he said. "They see education as a bright future for their children. Some willingly defend the flag."

Mr. Bush, who has remained largely out of the policy arena since leaving office, issued an appeal. "As our nation debates the proper course of action relating to immigration," he said, "I hope we do so with a benevolent spirit and keep in mind the contributions of immigrants."

His tone contrasted sharply with the prevailing views and language of Republicans during the presidential campaign, when Mitt Romney said he favored policies that would force illegal immigrants to "self-deport."

In Washington, leaders of a coalition that unites conservative law enforcement officials and clergy with business leaders — they described themselves as "Bibles, badges and business" — held a strategy session Tuesday on how to push for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, which would include "a road to lawful status and citizenship" for 11 million illegal immigrants.

While several of the conservatives meeting here had expressed their support for legalization measures, they sought to enhance their influence in the coming debate by joining forces.

President Obama, acknowledging the central role of Latino support in his re-election, has said he intends to start the immigration debate early next year. Already, groups that favor legalization are assessing whether they should push for a path to citizenship as well as an overhaul of the immigration system, which is widely regarded as dysfunctional.

Some organizations argue that taking the thorny issues in smaller parts would be more likely to produce results, particularly since many House Republicans remain opposed to any amnesty for illegal immigrants.

But Richard Land, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's policy arm, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said Tuesday at a news conference here that immigration was a "moral issue." He warned Republicans that "if they want to be a contender for national leadership, they are going to have to change their ways on immigration reform."

The Rev. Samuel Rodriguez, the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the largest organization of Latino evangelicals, portrayed the Republicans' dilemma in biblical terms. "They must cross the proverbial Jordan of immigration reform," he said, "if they want to step into the promised land of the Hispanic electorate."

The conservatives argued that the outcome of the election, in which Latinos gave Mr. Romney only 27 percent of their votes, should force Republicans to reconsider their support for enforcement-only policies that offer no path to legal status for illegal immigrants. They argued that an overhaul would also stop the breakup of Hispanic families by deportation.

The Rev. Luis A. Cortés Jr., the president of Esperanza, an organization based in Philadelphia that includes 13,000 Hispanic churches, said conservatives had misread Latinos in the election. "In this election, the Hispanic voter moved away from social values to family values," Mr. Cortés said.

Sheriff Mark C. Curran of Lake County, Ill., which includes the Chicago suburb of Waukegan, said he had undergone "a conversion" on immigration since taking office. He said law enforcement officials should "be honest" in recognizing that the borders could not be secured without giving legal documents to immigrants already here.

Tuesday's strategy session was called by the National Immigration Forum, which favors an overhaul.

Steve Case, a co-founder of AOL who now runs a firm that invests in start-up companies, told the session that immigrant entrepreneurs were vital to bringing innovation that had spurred American growth in the past. "The data says they are job makers, not job takers," Mr. Case said.

But he said both parties in Congress should focus on results. "My view is it's important to get as much done as we can as quickly as we can," Mr. Case said.

Peter Baker contributed reporting.
 

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